Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino: An Exercise in Self-Pity?

Cinema-goers haven't been treated to Clint Eastwood's dulcet singing voice since he warbled "I Talk to the Trees" in Paint Your Wagon. Mr. Eastwood's latest film Gran Torino remedies that lack and offers up a swan song quite unlike any other.

Aside from the somewhat dubious pleasure of Eastwood's tuneful noodlings, Gran Torino is not a very good film. The acting lurches wildly from downright horrible to the merely confusing. The story makes no sense, and the underlying moral quandary is little more than a cartoon. The fact that it's been well reviewed makes me scratch my head a bit, but can probably be chalked up to the fact that everyone loves Clint Eastwood.

A long way from 1972

Despite its flaws, Gran Torino is interesting, mostly because of its timing. Given that the economic chaos in the U.S. barrels along, and the heart has fallen out of the automotive sector, the title character's role becomes increasingly poignant. And by title character I mean the car, not the Clint, although it is very easy to confuse the two. A man is his car, after all. In this, the 1972 Gran Torino is more than a mere symbol, it is relic of a bygone era for both men and machines. A lean, mean muscle car of the first order turns many a man weak-kneed, as does old Clint Eastwood himself. The man is a living, breathing relic, still straight and hard, despite his 78 years on the planet. But in this modern age, both man and car are dinosaurs, passing on, leaving only big footprints and hulking skeletons behind.

Clint plays Walt Kowalski, a red-blooded American of the old-school tradition, who has just lost his wife, Dorothy. The opening scene, which takes place at her funeral, lays the family dynamics. While Walt's two pudgy bovine sons and their whinging, disrespectful broods patronize the old man and place dibs on his stuff, Walt growls and scowls at the world. Even the limp reproaches of the local priest have little effect on Walt's dyspepsia.

The old coot appears content to end his days drinking beer on the porch with his dog Daisy, complaining about the decline and fall of the neighbourhood. After working more than 50 years at the Ford plant, raising a family, and giving his life's blood to his nation that sold everything off to the Chinese, Walt has little love for the current culture. His sons repaid his efforts by turning into shallow, avaricious twits.

One son even sells foreign cars for a living -- the ultimate rebuke to the old man.


White folks have largely moved out of his Detroit neighbourhood, leaving it to the influx of Asian immigrants, who seem to lack even the most passing affinity for hammer and nails. The place is falling apart, with the exception of Walt's tiny perfect patch of lawn, presided over by garden gnomes. There is little left to live for, except the bitter pleasures of bile and beer. But as Walt sits and watches, growling every possible racial epithet under his breath, life intrudes in the form of his next door neighbours, a Hmong family with troubles of their own.

When Thao, the family's young son, falls under the predation of a local gang, it is up to Walt to rescue him, and show him the means of becoming a man. This involves stuff like tools, cars and working construction. Thao is obviously in need of an injection of testosterone, since he does everything his older sister Sue tells him to do. So too, the female-led Hmong household is in need of some elemental manliness, which Walt, gradually, grudgingly supplies. There are a few amusing set-pieces here, such as Walt introducing Thao to the correct way to speak to other manly type men; bitching about mechanics and women is always a sure bet.

As Walt and Thao's respect and affection for each other slowly grows into something that approaches familial dimensions, the stage is set for a final showdown.

Walt's history as a soldier is referred to throughout the film, setting up expectations for a final conflagration of violence and death, but when the resolution arrives, it comes off less as a grand act of selfless heroism, and more as a goofy gesture. The Asian gang members, with their giant pants, souped-up foreign cars and atrocious lack of manners, will be taken to school. Just not quite in the way you might expect. It's something of a letdown.

Brawn and out

These thwarted expectations speak to what we, as an audience, have come to expect from Clint Eastwood. Where is the grimly meted-out cold lead of vengeance?

The notion that Walt's damaged soul is cleansed by self-sacrifice, not vigilante justice, as was formerly the case in many an Eastwood vehicle, confounds. An actor whose entire career rests soundly upon the precept that in the heart of every American lives a murderer suddenly proposes that violence doesn't work. It's a tad ridiculous. If the film is supposed to be about the passing away of an earlier mode of American manhood, or more correctly, the passing on of an older value system, what it offers up is merely a tonal change, not a fundamental revision.

So, what is the film trying to tell us exactly? That the director's entire career of hired killers, hard men and gimlet-eyed drifters don't have a place in this new American age? Or, maybe that the time of the almighty white male, has indeed passed?

It is Thao who takes on the mantle of American manhood. A few different reads of this scenario suggest themselves right away.

The first being that the rest of the world, mean, harsh and struggling, will soon march roughshod over complacent America. Foreign interests now own much of the major manufacturing in the U.S. anyway, so maybe there's not much left to take over.

The second is maybe a little more complex, namely that the men who came of age in tougher times, fought in wars, worked hard for their entire lives are blinking out, one by one. After all their struggle and theoretically noble effort, all that butchery in the name of protecting the American way of life, what followed them but a bunch of self-satisfied lumpen people, content with a comfortable, well-fed existence and as much stuff as they can get their hands on.

Like the lovingly polished medals of an earlier war, the fading remnants of American glory have fallen into dust and disuse. So too, American values have crumbled into self-interest and petty avarice. What is the use of heroism in such a diminished age? The film might soft-shoe shuffle around some of these questions, but it's entirely too goofy to really engage with them. The Clint heroes of old, as compromised and complex as they were, still had the toughness needed to grapple with moral ambiguity. That quality is missing here. So, too, the sophistication needed to cut into the heart of the issue.

Sorry old boy

The film is at pains to demonstrate the cost of prejudice, but at its heart is a big old heaping pile of the stuff. Thao is acceptable when he takes on the trappings of traditional masculinity, gets a car, a girlfriend and a construction job, ergo: he becomes a good American. Other Asians aren't nearly so lucky, but the film has little love for anyone of whatever colour or hue -- white fatties or black street-toughs -- who don't espouse the traditional values of hard work and tough love.

Walt may have more in common with his Hmong neighbours than his old spoilt family, but in essence, who is to blame for that? If you take a running leap and extend the figure of Walt as emblematic of what America used to stand for, things get more complex. Whether it was the Korean War or the Detroit auto industry -- big wars, big cars, even big men, have done the world some considerable damage. Their time of retribution has finally come, but now they want us to feel sorry for them. This undercurrent of self-pity in the movie is more than simply irritating, it is intolerable.

As one of remaining holdouts from old-school Hollywood, as both a filmmaker and arguably as a man, Clint Eastwood is something of a leftover. His style of filmmaking is fundamentally old-fashioned, and while it can offer some pleasure, he also has a tendency towards schmaltz that is often completely unchecked.

Whether Gran Torino will be Eastwood's final film remains to be seen. But if this turns out to be the case, it is a curious way to bid fond adieu to the movie-going public. Whether it's a last kiss-off or something of an apologia for a career, there is an elegiac quality that lingers. It reminded me oddly enough of Woody Allen's last film. It feels like a goodbye of sorts, to a country and a way of life that is changing forever.

Whether that's a good thing or not depends on your tolerance for swan songs.


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